MY CHURCH WAS RIGHT: HARRY-POTTER WAS A THREAT TO MY FAITH

The renowned Harry Potter franchise has never been in worse health as this year celebrates 25 years since the first book in the series turned many young readers into lifelong readers.

The show has received harsh criticism for its storyline flaws, functional but unattractive prose, and use of stereotypical representations of underrepresented groups, such as antisemitic goblins and an Irish character notorious for casting spells that explode. J.K. Rowling, the author of the series, has frequently voiced worry in recent years about the impact that trans rights legislation will have on women and girls. Her transphobic views have led her supporters and detractors to refer to her as a transgender exclusionary radical feminist, or “TERF.” A generation that grew up watching The Boy Who Lived is giving up on the show and moving on.

It’s challenging for me to remain a fan of the original tale in this day and age. I was shocked to find that J.K. Rowling holds transphobic ideas. I graduated from high school just as the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series was published, so I, like many other millennials, felt myself a card-carrying member of the Harry Potter generation. The Harry Potter series was my favorite, but I loved being a part of numerous literary fandoms, from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Lord of the Rings.

But for me, being a Harry Potter fan wasn’t just about reading a good book series or getting lost in a fantastical world; J.K. Rowling’s writings challenged how I had been raised as a fundamentalist Baptist and finally led me to abandon traditional Christianity. I learned what it is to love and welcome my neighbor from figures like the Weasley family and Hermione Granger, who stood with muggle-born wizards and house elves when other members of the magical world did not. The characters’ protracted battle to persuade the Ministry of Magic to take Lord Voldemort’s return seriously also helped me realize how inadequate our world’s institutions, including our religions and governments, are. I wanted to be someone who took action to put an end to awful things rather than someone who chose to overlook them.

I was in elementary school when the first Harry Potter books were released in the US. I remember being an uncomfortable and shy child then; I adored my library card and took comfort in the bundles of books I brought home from the neighborhood branch. My parents and the rest of our fundamentalist Baptist church believed that anything concerning witchcraft was unacceptable reading for decent Christian children. However, I was a prime target for a popular new children’s book series.

I was overjoyed when I took Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone home. After months of my pleading, we finally came to an agreement where I would read the book with my parents, and we would talk about any unsettling topics. By the time the book was finished, I was sure they would understand what I had seen: a conflict between good and evil, hate and love, reflecting the simplistic theology of God and sin that I had learned in Sunday school. The narrative sounded morally upright and like a natural match for me.

My parents were opposed. My mother said with a shrug, “It has witches. “That’s not right,” I was saddened when they instructed me to stop reading the books, but I took the challenge.

I met Julianne on the first day of middle school; she is now a longtime friend. She shared my faith in Christ, but unlike me, her family went to a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-an affiliated church. It seemed incredibly unjust to her that she was permitted to read the book series.

We devised a plan: Julianne would bring me the other published novels, and I would read them after my parents went to bed. It worked perfectly, though my mother grew suspicious as each book got thicker and thicker, and the corner of my mattress rose higher and higher.

I started to critically consider what occurs when communities embrace and even celebrate differences, particularly those differences that frequently identify someone as an outsider, as I read more works set in the Harry Potter universe and beyond. I started to think about how evil forces might undermine reliable systems, even when well-intentioned humans are in charge of them. In the books, the good and the bad in the wizarding world have to be seen by individuals outside the established power structures of magical society. The bravery, fortitude, and love of standard, frequently outcast wizards and magical creatures finally triumphed; neither the Minister of Magic nor the upper-class wizarding community could save the day. It got me to wonder what else the generic, prosperity gospel-centered wing of the Christian church, and consequently, my religion, was lacking.
I eventually walked away from the fundamentalist church I had grown up in. After taking a vacation from religion, I rejoined Julianne’s church because it seemed to embody better what Jesus instructed his disciples to do. At summer camp, I made friends with students from many religious backgrounds, and by the time the sixth book was published, I was the disobedient goth kid waiting in line at Barnes & Noble at midnight to buy my copy.

So what now, I wonder when I think back on the Harry Potter books. How do I read a series whose author has spoken out against individuals I care about and respect but isn’t particularly well written?

Because of who I am and how my tale turned out, I will always feel conflicted about it. The books in the series aren’t exactly the best examples of fantasy literature. I’ll always be saddened by their flaws, the author’s opinions, and the people they would have helped if they hadn’t alienated so many people with their harsh, repressive beliefs. I’m content to stop monetarily supporting the franchise and instead focus on the independent artists motivated by the book series. The book series is still in my possession, but it is no longer prominently displayed on the main bookcase in my living room. And I’m more inclined to listen to podcasts like Witch, Please, which attentively and critically evaluate the narrative via a progressive academic lens than I am to reread the books.

But it played a significant role in my faith journey and helped me get to where I am today. My tale is entwined with those of Hermione’s house-elf activism, Luna’s devoted friendship even though she is aware her friends think she is unusual, and the Order of the Phoenix speaking out against the Death Eaters who are present. And when I speak truth to power, I’m reminded of Harry himself, who defied the grownups in his life who wanted him to utter lies for their benefit and instead chose to tell the truth, even when it was difficult or uncomfortable – strikingly similar to Jesus’ teachings. I wouldn’t be the progressive Christian I am today without Harry Potter, and I will always be grateful to the series for that.

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